Boniface VIII was born around 1235 as Benedetto Caetani in Anagni, Italy. The Caetanis were an established and noble family. As Benedetto got older, he first studied law before entering the service of the papal government. Throughout his time in government, Benedetto gradually transitioned from lawyer to priest.
In 1281, Pope Martin IV elevated Benedetto to St. Nicholas’ cardinal deacon. A decade later, Pope Nicholas IV made Benedetto a cardinal priest of St. Martin. During the early 1290s, Pope Celestine V began expressing his desire to retire. Seeing an opportunity to further advance in the church, Benedetto convinced Celestine to step down. As a result, Benedetto became Pope Boniface VIII in 1294.
Shortly after becoming pope, Boniface VIII imprisoned his predecessor in the castle of Furmone. The new pope feared that Celestine V’s supporters would try to reinstate him. Although an imprisoned Celestine died of old age, Boniface’s enemies believed that the pope had murdered him. Despite this suspicion, Boniface’s attention would soon be focused elsewhere as conflict erupted between England in France.
In 1294, a disagreement arose between Philip IV of France and Edward I of England. A ruthless king, Philip IV wanted to demonstrate his power over his kingdom, including his vassals. Since Edward had territory in France, the English king was therefore Philip’s vassal. As a result, the French king sought to assert his authority over Edward. However, when Philip threatened to take Edward’s duchy of Gascony, the English king fought back.
Throughout the 1290s, France and England engaged in multiple battles. Believing that he could stop the fighting, Boniface VIII intervened. Although he desired peace between both kingdoms, the pope also wanted to end each king’s practice of taxing their clergies. At the time, taxing clergy without the pope’s consent violated canon law. In response to this practice, Boniface issued the bull Clericos Laicos in 1296. The bull forbid any unauthorized taxation under penalty of excommunication.
Conflict with France
Although England largely supported the proclamation, France proved more resistant. Unlike Edward I, Philip IV scoffed at the idea of a pope having more authority than him. The French king believed that he had the legal right to taxation, whether clergy or not. In retaliation, Philip prevented the exportation of money and goods from France to Rome. As a result, Boniface lost substantial French revenues.
In an attempt at peace with Philip IV, Boniface VIII canonized the king’s grandfather, Louis IX, in 1297. During his reign, Louis had exemplified saintly qualities. Philip idolized his grandfather and had actively sought for him to be declared a saint. Although this action pleased the king, the peace between both men proved short-lived.
In 1301, Philip IV imprisoned a French bishop named Bernard Saisset for treason. The bishop had allegedly insinuated that Louis IX burned in hell. Since kings couldn’t prosecute clergy, Boniface took offense to Philip’s disregard for papal authority. In response, the pope issued a bull called Ausculta Fili (Listen Son) demanding the bishop’s release. Due to this incident, a permanent breach occurred between Boniface and Philip.
In November 1302, Boniface VIII issued a bull called Unam Sanctum (One Holy). Within the bull, the pope outlined the supremacy of spiritual authority over temporal authority. Despite this powerful proclamation, Philip IV refused to back down. Instead, the French king began conspiring against Boniface.
During spring 1303, Philip IV called for a government assembly to discuss the pope. The king claimed that Boniface VIII had killed Celestine V and couldn’t be a valid pope. As the meeting progressed, Philip and his advisors issued a series of accusations against Boniface. These accusations included charges of heresy, simony, and blasphemy. In Rome, the pope began preparing a document to excommunicate Philip for his actions.
Boniface VIII’s Downfall
On September 7, 1303, Philip IV’s henchman, William de Nogaret, captured Boniface VIII. Nogaret claimed that the pope was going to excommunicate the king on the 8th. Although killing Boniface was suggested, it never occurred. During his time in captivity, Boniface’s health began to decline. On October 11, the old pope died. Despite evidence of abuse, Boniface’s successor, Benedict XI, declared Philip innocent.
Boniface VIII spent his pontificate attempting to establish his supremacy over Europe. However, he found himself engaged in a bitter power struggle with Philip IV of France. Even after Boniface’s death, the conflict between church and king continued. It would only end in 1305 after Pope Clement V moved the papal capital from Italy to France. This action would eventually pave the way for the Western Schism.
Bradbury, J. (2010). The Capetians: Kings of France, 987-1328. London: Hambledon Continuum.
Cavendish, R. (2002, November 11). Boniface VIII’s Bull Unam Sanctam. Retrieved July 8, 2020, from https://www.historytoday.com/archive/boniface-viii%E2%80%99s-bull-unam-sanctam
Daugherty, G. (2019, February 21). In 1303 the French King Sent Goons to Attack and Kidnap the Pope. Retrieved July 06, 2020, from https://www.history.com/news/french-king-kidnapping-pope-philip-iv-boniface-vii